The Hispanic students at school were slightly better. Many of those who spoke English joined the black students in bullying and racially discriminating against Asians. The more recent immigrants, however, did not speak enough English to dish out racial slurs. Like many Asian immigrants, they, too, wore shabby clothing and came from impoverished families trying to eke out a living. They spoke Spanish and tended to congregate among themselves. Every now and then, I spent time with them. Maybe our immigrant experiences unified us, but our language and cultural barriers, as well as the discriminatory behavior of other Hispanics, always kept me from becoming their close friends.
Meanwhile, the large Asian student population at school provided me with little comfort. Although I ate lunch each day with a couple of nice Chinese girls, we did little else together. I dreaded spending time with a vast majority of the Asians at school. Many were Chinese; many others were Vietnamese immigrants of Chinese descent. We had little in common. I regularly immersed myself in Chinese text, such as multi-volume Chinese martial arts novels that weaved stories about ambition, power, love, betrayal before a backdrop of dynastic rule, political insurrections and military strategy. The other Chinese-speaking students preferred to discuss the appearances of actors and actresses from Hong Kong, the latest Chinese soap opera on television and other mindless subjects.
Many of these Asian students simply thought that I was stuck up and unfriendly, or both. Which was fine. I did not expect them to understand.
I expected even less from the white students. They made up an extremely small minority but along with certain Asian students, were always present in the small number of classes offered to “gifted” students.
Compared to other racial groups in Oakland, white people tended to be better dressed, better educated, more polite. Rarely did they threaten to assault Chinese people physically or berate us racially. Many of the white students were cordial and friendly but I found little to talk about with them. Most of them lived a much more sanitized life than I. While I lined up, along with much of the school, each day for government subsidized lunches, the white students brought or bought their own. While I lived in an apartment on a crime-strewn street, they mostly lived in the hills, where the grass was greener and streets safer. While they talked about movie stars, boy bands and shopping, I had never been inside a movie theater in America, did not listen to popular music and had little money to shop for anything.
Then one day, I forgot about my relentless pursuit of academic achievement, my fervent love for Chinese novels and my inability to relate to my peers. I had a decision to make: Was I or was I not going to remain a “Chinaman”?
A Mexican girl had gotten right in my face, and I could see her spit flying as she threatened, “You stupid Chinese bitch, I’m going to kick your ass!”
Just minutes ago, we were sitting on the floor mats inside a small room. We were in the middle of gym class. Our instructor was telling us that we would play basketball among ourselves today. He would disappear and leave us unsupervised, as he often did.
Right before the instructor sent us outside, the Mexican girl behind me growled, “Moooove, you Chinaman. You’re in my way.” I looked around. The floor mat was filled with students and she wanted more space.
“Bitch, moooove,” the Mexican girl on the floor mat repeated her demand.
“No, you move,” I responded with neither certainty nor conviction. Confrontation was not my forte.
The Mexican girl did not share my compunction. Like many others at my junior high, she showed up at school but did not learn; went to class but did not study. She liked to puff herself up as a badass who was ready to fight her way through any disagreement. Yet she rarely picked fights with those bigger than her in size. Instead, she regularly dished out racial slurs to those who looked Chinese. Against us, her epithets rarely elicited a response.
She was now visibly agitated. “Listen, you Chinese bitch,” she threatened. “If you don’t move, I’m gonna make you.” I did not move.
Her first punch landed on my right thigh, a couple of inches above the knee. I saw the muscle twitch and contract. I had never been physically attacked by a racist before. In the past, I had always managed to stay quiet or walk away.
I punched back. Then she hit me again, and I responded in kind.
I was no stranger to fist fights. At home, scuffles with an older brother, who was some thirty to forty pounds heavier, regularly took place. In comparison, getting hit by a Mexican girl who was not much bigger was entirely unremarkable. There was, however, something deeply unsettling about being in a fight at school. Fighting was for punks, gangsters, and losers who would amount to no good, not for a super nerd with a 4.0 grade point average.
Students in our gym class started to file outside. I got up to leave as well, hoping that that would be the end of the scuffle. It was not. The Mexican girl followed me. Her usual posse, which consisted of about three other Hispanic girls, surrounded us outside. Racial slurs started to fly.
“Yeah, kick her Chinese ass!” “Chinese bitch!” “Stupid Chinaman!” The Mexican girl’s friends egged her on.
The Mexican girl was now in my face. She would stay in my face for the rest of class, taunting and cursing. Every now and then, she would attack physically. Each time, I would respond, but without her fervor.
When the Mexican girl attacked, her friends would cheer and yell more racial epithets at the Chinaman. When she engaged in trash talk, they would laugh. Throughout the confrontation, others came and went to watch. Not all of them were her friends, but none was mine. Perhaps my friends did not know. Perhaps they did and just chose to stay away. I had few friends anyway.
Michelle, a Filipina girl with whom I had gone to elementary school, was the only one who was nearby. We were not particularly close, but we had been cordial ever since fourth grade. She had always been nice to me, and to everyone else. A few days before, we had lunch together in the school courtyard. Instead of throwing away her soda can, she handed it to the older Asian man who scoured the campus each day, hunched over with a large bag, to collect cans and bottles for recycling. Right then and there, a couple of black students in the courtyard yelled in his direction: “Hey, Chinaman, come take this can!” I winced. Michelle said nothing, and neither did I.
Now, out of the corner of my eye, I saw her at a basketball court that was within earshot of every word uttered in the fight, but she did not look our way. With her back turned toward us, she repeatedly tried to shoot a ball into the basket. She would stay there repeating the same motion, by herself, for the rest of the class.
I felt the cold wind as it blew through my thin white sweater. It was nearing the end of the fall semester. Winter was on the cusp of its arrival in California. Frigidity was creeping into my limbs, interrupted only by the periodic blow from the Mexican girl.
“Man, her braces hella stink,” the Mexican girl was getting on with her trash talk.
I had to get on with mine: “You look like a fucking mummy.” Trash talking was not a skill that I had practiced in the three short years that I had been speaking English. Without even thinking about it, I invoked the latest topic in my world history class. We were in the middle of studying ancient Egypt.
Someone watching on the sidelines murmured, “What’s a mummy?” The target of my insult, however, understood the reference perfectly. She had good reason to. Like many other female junior high school students in the ghetto, she wore heavy and cheap makeup. It added a thick layer of brown to her face and made it lifeless. The brown was complemented by extremely dark eyeliner that made her eyes look hollow. Her lipstick, bright red, accentuated the lifelessness of the rest of her face and revealed a mouth full of braces and yellow teeth.
“What did you call me? I don’t look like a mummy. You’re the fucking mummy, you Chinese bitch.”
“Go fuck yourself, you Mexican ho.” The audience gasped. No one blinked when blacks and Hispanics, or anyone else, insulted Asians with racial slurs, but since Asians never responded in kind, or at all, my response appeared scandalous. Trading racial slurs may have been a stupid way of combating racism and ignorance, but in the seventh grade, standing there alone, it was the only response I could offer.
My racial slur sparked another physical scuffle. It ended when a tall black girl, Tyesha, stood between me and the Mexican girl and said, “C’mon, Nina, don’t get into a fight.” Tyesha used to sit in front of me in class in the fourth grade. We met on my first day of school in America. At first, when I could not speak English, we said hello to and smiled. When my English gradually improved, we conversed, often with the help of hand gestures. When my English improved further, I helped her with math, a subject with which she always had difficulty.
Back then, I was “Nina” and Tyesha was one of the first black people I had ever seen in my life. At the time, I did not know what racism was and believed that everyone in America had an English name. By junior high, I had reverted to my given name. At the same time, I was getting to know racism far more intimately than I ever wanted to.
Tyesha was now telling me and the Mexican girl to break up the fight. She was an entire head taller than both of us. When neither of us showed any interest in heeding her advice, Tyesha started to laugh. The nerdy Chinese girl who once did not speak English was now getting into a fight with her Mexican friend. It was all very funny to her. After a few laughs, she left us to find entertainment elsewhere. She had not come to break up the fight after all.
She could have, but did not, stay to take part in the jeering on the sidelines. Perhaps she would have had I not been “Nina” but some Chinaman that she did not know. Whatever her intentions, the few minutes when she stood between me and the Mexican girl – when she did not exactly take my side and in fact prevented me from hitting anyone – offered me the only respite from feeling entirely alone in the fight. When she took off, I returned to the trash talk and physical confrontation. Nearby, Michelle was still shooting hoops with her back turned toward us.
The fight continued its course until the bell rang. The Mexican girl and her posse decided to go to their next class. So with a bit more trash talking and jeering from the sidelines, they left.
Michelle was now gone from the basketball court too. There was nothing that she could have done had she stood by my side. She would have risked being physically attacked herself. Like most Asian girls, she did not swear, rarely yelled and never traded racial insults.
She looked just as Chinese as I and befriended mostly Chinese people. The remarks from the Mexican girl that started the fight could have been uttered to her just as they were uttered to me. They were not. So she pretended as if she were not there. I never forgave her.
I slowly walked over to the locker room to change for my next class. My hands were freezing. In the cold, no other Chinamen shared my anger or my frustration, even if they daily shared my humiliation.
Incredulous friends and acquaintances alike came up to me throughout the rest of the day. Many asked, “You called her a Mexican ho? Why?” Upon discovering my reasons (“because she called me a Chinese bitch”), their look of incredulity gave way to either confusion or bemusement. A pretty Asian girl in one of my “gifted” classes looked like she wanted to ask why that was worth fighting over, but she must have seen the fatigue in my eyes and just walked away. A big white girl – the only white person I knew at that school who lived in a neighborhood worse than mine and who regularly resorted to racial epithets against Asians — nearly broke out in laughter. She did not, perhaps because she still needed to copy my homework for our next class.
No one asked if I was physically hurt. I did not report the incident to any of the school’s instructors or administrators. They would not have cared, and even if they did, they would have done nothing.
Like a zombie, I went from class to class the rest of the day. When school ended, I slowly dragged myself home. As much as I disliked junior high, I never rejoiced on the way home. On most days, I was too tired. Racism, and the outrage and bitterness that it fostered, always accompanied me. Over time, they festered and multiplied. On this day, I chose not to be a Chinaman, but the upshot made clear that I was just a foul-mouth nerd who got into fights she could not win.
At home that evening, I did not discuss the fight. There were no bruises and no marks on my body and no need for any explanation. My parents worked twelve to sixteen hour days at subminimum wage jobs. They did not need to worry about a daughter who got into schoolyard brawls, whatever the reason.
I did my best to appear chipper, and did such a good job that my brother observed, “You seem really happy today. You must have had a good day at school.” I mumbled an unintelligible noise and he took it as a “yes.”
The next day, I would dread going to school once again.
Ying Ma is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. She is currently working on a book titled, From Guangzhou to the Ghetto.
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